The middle of winter can be the least-beautiful time to photograph portraits. Just like my studio closes outdoor family portrait sessions in the winter, the murky backgrounds, flat light and leafless trees don’t provide the richest of backgrounds.

But that can be saved, thanks to your aperture setting on your dslr!

In this blog post for photographers and hobbyists alike, I’m sharing a few tips to help you give your portraits some dreamy bokeh and colorful pop in the dead of winter. 

Find a Pop of Color 

The first task – find some color! No matter if you live in a small snow-filled town in Connecticut or the dreary, flat-lit hills of Scotland, there is bound to be a tiny bit of saturated color somewhere. Look along the water, grasses, golden fields or a colorful building in town. For my portrait example, I found this small bit of shrubbery along the water in my town of Strasbourg, France. While wandering the canals, I found a shrub with scattered, brightly-colored oranges berries. Upon seeing this hint of color, I knew I could make my deary setting look like a Fall day in New England!

Place Subject in Between Foreground and Background Color

To really draw your viewers eyes to the portrait, you’ll want to add some foreground and background in between your model’s face. This gives an image a little extra pop and helps focus the attention on a particular subject you want your viewer to focus on. 

In my situation, I assessed what I wanted my ideal portrait to look like visually before taking action and decided that I wanted a mix of orange berries to be in the background blur as well as in front of me, so as to frame my husband’s face. I moved my husband, who was walking along the canal with me at the time, beside the shrub and delicately lowered a berry-filled branch (so as to not get pricked by the sharp needles on the plant!) underneath his face, to frame the portrait. I also always look for the catchlights – or the little light dots from the sun – reflecting in the subject’s eyes. 

The shrub I used to photograph

Adjust Your Aperture 

The final step to get that gorgeous milky and dreamy bokeh around your subject is to open up your aperture. In other words, you want to lower your /f. stop as low as it can go without getting your subject’s entire face in focus. 

This lower aperture setting results in a narrower depth of field, so you are able to select specific objects to focus in on within the frame and leave the rest out of focus and blurry.  For my style personally, the more background blur, the better when photographing portraits. I just love the simplicity and dreamy-ness of it all. 

While I often love lowering my aperture to 1.8 or even 1.6, in this situation my aperture was at an f stop of 2.0 on my Canon 50mm 1.4 lens. Since the lower aperture is allowing more light into my camera, I can use a faster shutter speed, which can result in sharper, more clear photographs.

If you’d like to see what my gears consists of for my family portrait sessions, click here!

My Camera Settings

For these images, my settings on my 50 mm were: ISO 400, f/2.0 and 1/600 second.

I personally love a low aperture, a super high shutter speed and then adjust my ISO last. A little bit of grain never bothers me, as my heavy-duty dslr can take it, and I also use Noiseware in Photoshop in post-processing if worst comes to worst there is more grain than I’d like. 

Boost Up that Saturation in Photoshop or Lightroom

Last but not least, I use Photoshop to edit my images. For these portraits, that my husband so graciously took of me in my new and most beloved Poshmark-bought J. Crew coat (which I have been dreaming of owning for two years!) I boosted up that orange saturation and increased the contrast! In order to have only the orange shrubs be vibrant and saturated, I use layer masks to remove the orange saturation and contrast off of my face.

I hope these quick tips help in any way, and please let me know in the comments below if these tips help you! I will continue to post my findings and discoveries as a photographer if only they are of service to you! 🙂

How to Photograph a Vibrant and Dreamy Portrait in the Dead of Winter

February 21, 2019


Comments Off on How to Photograph a Vibrant and Dreamy Portrait in the Dead of Winter


Receive my latest blog posts via email

Get access to the latest Simple Joys blog posts as soon as they're posted!

I'm Helena! As a creative storyteller, I document magical moments through my lens and my pen. A lover of childhood, fairytales and natural light, I'm inspired to share the light around me. I'm the ultimate Disney nerd, and I'm obsessed with cats and expressing my love for the simple joys of slow, daily life.

Hey there!

meet the blogger



Check out all my favorite photography gear, travel must-haves, resources, books I love, business hacks and so much more!

let's read 'em!

Studio Updates

from helena

Sign up for my personal newsletter where I share writings and photographs of what I've been learning lately and the simple joys of daily life. Think of this as a personal letter from me to you - but in email format! 

keep my posted!

Helena Woods is a destination newborn and family photographer based in France and New England and travels worldwide. She is known for her natural light, modern classic, and emotive photography style.